'Today Will Be Different' Tackles Parenting Fatigue And Middle-Aged Marriage
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Maria Semple, has written a new comedic novel that takes place on one day in the life of its main character, Eleanor Flood. Eleanor is a middle-aged mother, who earlier in life had success as the animation director for a popular TV show. She was also nominated for a prestigious graphic novel award that led to a book contract. That was many years ago, and now, having made no progress, she's dodging calls from her editor. She's also worried she's not romantic enough with her husband, or present enough with their son Timby. Timby's unusual name was suggested by an autocorrect error on Eleanor's iPhone.
She's decided to get her life together and has created a mantra to say to herself when she wakes up in the morning. The mantra's first sentence is the title of Semple's novel, today will be different. It's both hilarious and moving to read Eleanor's most ungraceful attempts at self-improvement.
Maria Semple is also the author of the best-seller "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" Before writing books, Semple wrote for TV shows, including "Arrested Development" and "Mad About You." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Maria Semple, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MARIA SEMPLE: Thank you.
BRIGER: Your book starts with your character Eleanor Flood's mantra for the day. Can you just tell us a little bit about who Eleanor is?
SEMPLE: Eleanor Flood is a woman who lives in Seattle. She's an illustrator. She's the wife of a Seahawks doctor and the mother of an 8-year-old son Timby. And she is incredibly scattered and overwhelmed by basic daily existence.
BRIGER: (Laughter) That sounds fair. So this is her mantra that's trying to be a solution for some of these problems. Can you read it to us?
SEMPLE: (Reading) Today will be different today. Today, I will be present. Today, anyone I'm speaking to I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today, I'll play a board game with Timby. I'll initiate sex with Joe. Today, I will take pride in my appearance. I'll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today, I won't swear. I won't talk about money. Today, there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today, I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today, I will buy local. Today, I will be my best self, the person I'm capable of being. Today will be different.
BRIGER: (Laughter) That's very funny. So there's a lot going on in that mantra. There's - I like how it's a mix of, like, clearly important things and then some other things that are not so important. Why did you want to start your book with a mantra?
SEMPLE: I started my book that way because literally the day that I sat down to start writing my book I thought that I would go into a room with a yellow pad and sharpened pencils and try to channel something deep down inside of me, something that maybe was a source of pain or shame or a part of me that I didn't want the rest of the world to see thinking that perhaps from there I could have something with enough energy that I could base a novel on. And I sat down and I almost wrote that first page word for word. As soon as I finished it, it had this spooky, kind of scary, nauseating energy about it. And I thought wow, I think I'm about to embark on writing a novel that takes place in a single day.
BRIGER: I really like the yoga pants reference that you only wear yoga pants if you're actually going to yoga. That reminds me of a rule in my house where we only try to wear sweatpants if we're actually going to sweat. But of course, it's impossible - impossible to keep because it feels like you're leaving the house in your pajamas.
SEMPLE: It does. And it's now getting really frighteningly acceptable, isn't it? Athleisure-wear (ph) I think it's called...
SEMPLE: ...Where they're there just owning it out there. Now no one needs to put any work into it.
BRIGER: So, you know, the novel takes place in one day and actually provides her an opportunity to spend the whole day with Timby. But, you know, because of the plot of the book, she's stressed out and she's distracted. She keeps handing him off to people, sometimes random people at the Gap or...
BRIGER: ...People she hardly knows at a sculpture park.
BRIGER: And it's funny, but I think it gets to this issue that parents really struggle with. You know, they want to be as present as possible for their kids. They want to give the kids their full attention. They want to be the best person they can be for their kids. But, you know, at the end of the day, you're tired, you're cranky. And, you know, oftentimes, the children get the lesser version of you and the outside world has grabbed all your attention.
SEMPLE: Very much so. When in fact one of the reasons that I put Timby in the way that I did was that I was looking for a piece of paper one day. And I opened a spiral notebook, and there was a very darling picture that my daughter had drawn of me that said Mommy. And it was very sweet, and she signed her name and she said age 8. And I thought, oh, that's so cute. I'm going to tear this out and put it up on the wall. And directly on the next page was an illustration by her that said mad mommy. And it was a picture of me with smoke coming out of my ears looking really mean. And it was, like, by my daughter, age 8. And those two illustrations are in the novel.
SEMPLE: And I was very happy to be able to put mommy and mad mommy in the novel. And it really just devastated me because I do want to be mommy. But a lot of times I feel like my daughter gets sloppy seconds - you know? - and gets the worst of me every day. And that's not how you want to conduct your life at all. But that often, I can see, is the kid's experience. And so when I decided to put Timby in the book and I made him age 8 because it was literally the drawing - the age that my daughter was when she drew mad mommy - is I wanted to write realistically about a kid who really is getting the worst of his mother and how sad it is. But also, maybe even more sad is that the kid is not necessarily experiencing it that way, that - there's a line in the book where Eleanor says, I feel like I haven't been spending a lot of time with your dad. I feel like I'm not really there for him. And Timby says hoping to make her feel better, that's OK, mom, that's just the way you are. And he really is trying to help her and thinks that those are comforting words when in fact...
SEMPLE: ...They just make it worse for her.
BRIGER: Right. So did you in your mantra with your child - did you try to then play board games or make sure that you were present there all the time?
SEMPLE: Oh, absolutely. And Rat-a-tat Cat, in fact, makes an appearance in the book because that's a game that I really do try to play or Clue or - yeah...
BRIGER: I hate Clue. I can't stand Clue.
SEMPLE: I can't either. At some point, I just guess to get it over with...
BRIGER: Yeah, I do, too.
SEMPLE: ...Just randomly guess.
BRIGER: So another issue that Eleanor is dealing with, you mentioned it there, she's struggling in her marriage. And she actually thinks that her husband Joe might be having an affair. But, you know, beyond whether or not he is having an affair, if that's actually true, it's clear that they're drifting apart. They don't share a lot of the same interests together. And at one point, Eleanor says, somewhere along the way my marriage turned into an LLC. Joe and I became two adults joined in the business of raising a child. And, you know, I think that's an issue that a lot of parents struggle with, too, trying to make sure that the relationship doesn't just become about raising the offspring.
SEMPLE: That's right. And scheduling just becomes really the basic interaction I feel between adults. I remember - I mean, this must have been 10, 15 years ago the first time a friend of mine said, oh, I'll email my husband. And I thought, oh, my gosh, like, how could you admit to something - to cross that line? How impersonal. And now I feel like that's really how I interact with my partners. We email each other, and it's terrible, you know, and how at some point you you will drift into two people living in the same house together raising a child. You know, you're - at some point is easier just to go to things you like alone, letting them go to the things they like alone. And that's one of the things that Eleanor is faced with.
BRIGER: Right. And I think then the worry is that once the child leaves the home then what's left?
SEMPLE: Absolutely. And I - the cliche of you've got to put work into a marriage - it just - every day you're faced with it. And it is. You have to kind of work on the muscle to like each other and love each other.
BRIGER: Eleanor has a very funny rant comparing herself to younger moms. She considers that she had her child a little older in life. Could you read a passage for us?
SEMPLE: (Reading) When I graduated from college, it never would have occurred to me not to work. That's why women went to college to get jobs. Get jobs we did and kick some serious butt while we were at it, thank you very much. Until we realized we'd lost track of time and madly scrambled to get pregnant. I pushed it dangerously close to the wire and gave birth to little Timby, thus joining the epidemic of haggard women in their 40s trapped in playgrounds, slumped on buoying ladybugs, unconsciously pouring Tupperware containers of Cheerios down their own throats, sporting maternity jeans two years after giving birth and pushing swings with skunk stripes down the center of their hair. Who needed to look good any more? We got the kid. Was the sight of us so terrifying that the entire next generation of college-educated women declared anything but that and force their careers altogether to pop out children in their 20s? Looking at the Galer street moms the answer would be apparently. I hope it works out for them.
BRIGER: (Laughter). That's very, very funny. I don't know if you consider yourself a younger or older mom, but did you find yourself comparing yourself to younger, older moms on the playground?
SEMPLE: Well, I came up with that or I got that idea because I have several friends who are shrinks. And any time I do, I just say, hey, what's going on out there? Like what are you hearing about?
SEMPLE: And one of them - this is maybe 10 years ago said, oh, here's what I'm hearing. I'm hearing women who had kids, and they're old. And they're really tired or I'm hearing about young moms who are afraid of those old moms because they're so terrifying to look out that they have kids and now they're mad that they don't have any careers.
And so I just kind of put that back in my head, and I thought I'd throw that in the book. But, yes, you certainly feel old and tired and judged by the really beautifully put together young moms. And then there's later in the book a big scene with them and then Eleanor does something quite ghastly to get back at them for being so young and pleased with themselves.
BRIGER: That's right.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Maria Semple. Her new novel is called "Today Will Be Different." We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Maria Semple author of the new novel "Today Will Be Different." She used to write for the TV shows "Arrested Development" and "Mad About You."
BRIGER: In your new book, "Today Will Be Different" and your last book "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," there are scenes around it - Christian group choirs. And, you know, these are interesting moments because they - you know, your books deal with characters that have, like, a sarcastic or like an ironic position. They take an ironic position towards the world, but these passages with the choirs are written unironically and this - and that kind of singing requires you to be unironic and really give yourself up to the singing.
And one character says, you know, maybe that's what religion is hurling yourself off a cliff and trusting that something bigger will take care of you and carry you to the right place. Do you have that kind of a spiritual trust? Do you think of yourself as a religious person?
SEMPLE: I wish I had that spiritual trust. I'll tell you that. My mother is Catholic, and she - and I was raised Catholic. And my mother still goes to church and really wants me to go to church with her, and for all my years - for 50 years or at least the 30 years I consider myself an atheist, I would not only say I'm not going to church with you, but I would always kind of mock her and kind of throw an elbow in about how stupid religion was when she went off to church.
And then a couple years ago while I was writing "Today Will Be Different," I was in Colorado, and my mother was there. It's where I'm from Aspen, Colo., and she said, oh, I'm going to go to church. And my father had just died, and I thought why do I have to sit here and mock a woman for going to church? And why can't I go to church with my mother? Is this really something I'll be proud of looking back on my life that I couldn't go to church with my mother? And so I went to church with her, and I was deeply moved by what I saw there. And, in fact, there's stuff that goes on later in the book which is very much my experience of what happened when I went to church. And I never followed through on it, I will say, you know. But I really at least saw - it convinced me, and I thought it was beautiful.
BRIGER: Eleanor in your book "Today Will Be Different" was the animation director for a television show - and - before she was a mom and before you became a novelist, you worked for a variety of TV shows, including "Mad About You" and "Arrested Development." And, you know, "Arrested Development" was such a terrific show about this insanely dysfunctional family. Was there a favorite character that you liked to write for?
SEMPLE: You know, what comes to my mind first is Will Arnett because when you're writing for TV, you often will write some really crazy stuff. And I think what's more common than most people realize is actors coming in and say I'm not going to do that because it embarrasses them. It would make people think that they're either clumsy or mean or stupid, you know? And so we have to do - we would have to do a lot of rewrites based on an actor's comfort level.
And Will Arnett from day one would just do anything and commit to it, you know? And when you talk to any kind of writer now - and I do still, my friends and TV - and you ask them about actors - and really if you're saying to someone do you like that actor? You're not saying are they a nice person? You're basically saying how much will they commit to your material? You know, because that's what you love, you love an actor who will just say, OK, point me in the direction and I'll just take it as far as I can because it's surprising how much pushback you actually get from actors.
BRIGER: Now, your father Lorenzo Semple, Jr. was also a writer. He wrote for television and film. And some of the screenplays he wrote were for the movies "Papillon," "The Parallax View," "Three Days Of The Condor," the 1976 version of "King Kong," "Flash Gordon," the James Bond movie where Sean Connery comes back, "Never Say Never Again." That's the one with the very creepy massage scene in it.
BRIGER: And he also wrote the television show "Batman." That's a very impressive list of credits. When you started getting into writing, did your father share any advice with you?
SEMPLE: He helped me with scripts. You know, he would go through scripts and give me notes on them. And what he would do was really take the logic seriously of every single scene. And that, I think, is something that's helped me as much as anything in that he would always say don't be afraid of ruining it in real life. If someone - oh, I have to get on a plane and fly across the country, maybe at least consider the fact that the plane ticket would be too much because you're buying it on short notice or, you know, just always go smaller instead of going bigger. You know, that story solutions happen on a small scale and don't just immediately revert to, oh, in the next scene they get famous. You know, like, try to pull it back into reality, which I know seems weird from the guy who wrote "Batman," but he had some other tricks up his sleeve.
BRIGER: So are there any disadvantages in being from a family of writers?
SEMPLE: I feel like it's been nothing but positive for me because as a child, what I saw was that writing was a job and it was a fun job. I will say that my father always said that he got into writing because his great uncle was the playwright Philip Barry. And he used to spend time with Philip Barry, and he hung out with the expatriates. And it was really quite a heady crowd. And my father always said, wow, that's a life that I would like to do is to be a writer because then I can hang out with other writers and drink martinis and it's - would be - what a wonderful elegant way to conduct oneself.
And so in my growing up, I was with my parents who really lived a wonderful life. They traveled all over the world. They brought their kids with them. We always had very interesting people - not just writers, directors, actors - around. And I also saw that my father worked really, really hard during the day, you know, and he wasn't to be disturbed. And he - you just saw the look on his face that this guy took it seriously and he worked hard and he was very professional.
And so I feel like I came to Hollywood with an understanding of how hard you had to write and how you had to keep at it. And also, I think the kind of disillusionment with Hollywood helped me in that I liked it but they were all just people to me at that point, you know, the people I grew up with, the movie stars and the various people. And so it kind of helped that I wasn't starry-eyed from the beginning. I just saw it as work.
BRIGER: Well, Maria Semple, thanks so much for being here.
SEMPLE: Thank you.
GROSS: Maria Semple's new novel is called "Today Will Be Different." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After we take a short break, Kevin Whitehead will review a newly released Dizzy Gillespie concert recording from 1980. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.